Hung by a Corpse – Occupational Hazards for the Resurrectionist

Hung by a Corpse – Occupational Hazards for the Resurrectionist

Life for the Resurrectionist, while certainly nasty and brutish, may also have been gravely shortened by their profession. Oddly enough, people resented those who unearthed and sold their loved ones’ bodies, no matter how much it advanced scientific knowledge, and they put up stiff opposition to the body-snatcher’s clandestine activities.

A RESURRECTIONIST KILLED

Grave Robbing at Mount Hope, Ky., Receives a Bloody Check.

Louisville, Ky., Dec. 18. News of the shooting of a grave robber at the cemetery in Mount Hope was received here yesterday. Several robberies had been committed and when the remains of Miss Morris were interred her fiancé watched the grave. Two men came at midnight and began digging. “Smiley” Jordan, a farm hand of the neighbourhood, was killed, but his companion escaped the fusillade of bullets. Marion County Herald [Palmyra, MO] 20 December 1894: p. 2 

Normally physicians did not go into the field in search of specimens, but perhaps this unfortunate decided to cut out the middle man.

BODY SNATCHER KILLED

Syracuse, N.Y., May 18. Dr. Henry W. Kendall was found in a meadow near the county poor house cemetery this morning with a bullet hole between his eyes. A full kit of resurrectionists tools were found near the body. It is supposed that he was engaged in body snatching. He cannot live. The Atchison [KS] Daily Champion 19 May 1882: p. 1 

Sad mistakes sometimes occurred.

FRENZIED FATHER KILLS WRONG MAN BY MISTAKE

Great Falls, Mont., May 10. Last night the body of the baby of Mr. and Mrs. W.C. Conroy was stolen from the grave in the local cemetery. This morning the father of the dead babe, while hunting the grave robbers, killed Joseph Hamilton, former sheriff of this county, mistaking him for the robber of his child’s grave. Fairbanks [AK] Daily Times 11 May 1911: p. 1

And there seemed to be little honor among corpse-thieves. In one particularly appalling instance, in Ohio an elderly, retired Resurrectionist named Beverly Taylor was murdered, along with his wife and grand-daughter, by his former colleagues, who sold the bodies to the Ohio Medical College: the same institution which Taylor had once supplied.

Sometimes there was disagreement over the spoils of the grave.  Usually an episode like the following would conclude in the arrest or lynching of the grave-robbers, rather than the grave defenders.

GRAVE ROBBER KILLED

Farmer Indicted for Shooting Wm. Gray, of Cantrell Party.

Indianapolis, March 14. Lucius Stout and Hampton West, farmers living 15 miles north of Indianapolis, were indicted today at Noblesville for the murder of Wm. Gray at Frankfort, in a grave yard battle over the possession of a corpse, in which Stout and West opposed Cantrell and his gang of thieves. The evidence before the grand jury showed Stout and West came upon Cantrell and his gang of thieves just as the latter was lifting a corpse from the grave in Beaver cemetery. West and Stout opened fire upon the gang, one bullet killing Gray, while the others escaped. Cantrell and his companions testified before the jury. They said Gray was buried in the swamps near the cemetery. Iowa City [IA] Press-Citizen 14 March 1903: p. 1 

I thought something didn’t quite ring true in this squib. Were Stout and West at the cemetery just as vigilante guardians of the grave? Well, not exactly…

The investigation of the operations of ghouls in the vicinity of Indianapolis, Ind., has taken a new and unexpected turn. The grand jury at Noblesville returned an indictment against Lucius Stout and Hampton West, charging the two men not only with grave robbery, but with murder. Both men are prominent and wealthy farmers. For years, according to the testimony of half the hundred witnesses who appeared before the jury, the two have been the most conspicuous figures among the mourners at all the funerals of the country-side. Even when they were unacquainted with either the dead or the surviving relatives, they were present at the graveside when the corpse was lowered to its last resting place. Suspicion on this account, has rested on the men for some time, but their wealth and position shielded them from open accusation Cantrell’s arrest and subsequent confession, however, implicated both men, and their arrest followed. The indictment returned charges them with the murder of William Gray in September, 1901. At midnight West and Stout, proceeding to a grave in the Beaver cemetery, surprised Cantrell and his gang at work removing the corpse that the two farmers had come to secure. Hot words followed, and both parties drew revolvers. A running fire ensued, in which Gray was mortally wounded and West’s forehead was grazed by a bullet. He bears the scar to-day. During the battle in the midst of the little churchyard, the combatants sheltered themselves behind the grave stones. Cantrell and his men, including Samuel Martin and Walter Daniel, two self-confessed ghouls, running short of ammunition, were forced to abandon Gray. The latter was taken by West and Stout to the West home, where it is alleged he died. By a strange turn in fate, Gray’s body, it is alleged, next made its appearance in the dissecting room of an Indianapolis medical college. Another story, however, relates that upon Gray’s death West and Stout buried his corpse in a swamp near the West home. The Indiana [PA] Democrat 18 March 1903: p. 10

Rufus Cantrell, “The King of the Ghouls,” sang like a ghoulish canary, implicating Stout in the chloroforming of a young woman, the murder of a police officer, and several other unsolved murders. Prosecutors were dubious and in the end Stout seems to have gotten off on a procedural technicality.

Many sextons and graveyard guards thought it prudent to arm themselves. There are thrilling reports of gun battles among the tombstones.

A RESURRECTIONIST KILLED

Last Monday night, Jacob Swein, the sexton of the new City Burial Ground, in Cincinnati, was awakened by a man in his employ, and told that some one was in the grave yard and engaged in digging up bodies. Mr. S., taking his gun, went out, and saw three persons, one of whom advanced towards him with a knife in his hand. Mr. S. immediately raised his gun and fired, with so much certainty as to kill the body-snatcher dead in his tracks. The other two instantly fled, leaving a horse and wagon, and the implements used for digging up the graves behind them. Lebanon [PA] Courier 15 October 1852: p. 2 

If it wasn’t one thing, it was another. Not only did honest Resurrection Men have to deal with over-zealous sextons with guns, there was no guarantee that the corpse they exhumed wasn’t a death-trap. An Ohio artist named Phil. K. Clover was the inventor of the “coffin torpedo.” 

Good News for the Dead

Mr. Phil. K. Clover, the artist, has invented a torpedo designed to make the robbery of graves a hazardous and unpopular business, and has taken the necessary steps to procure letters patent. The torpedo may be briefly described as a miniature needle-gun. It is about six inches long, and is divided into two pieces. The first piece, which is to be nailed inside the coffin, and almost covered by the upholster, contains a spiral spring, to which are attached two small chains, which are to be fastened around the body or around the arms of the corpse. So far the invention is harmless, but just before the final closing of the coffin the second piece, containing a cartridge, and arranged on the needle-gun plan is to be screwed onto the section containing the spring. The torpedo is now ready for action. The grave-robber may dig to the coffin, and remove the covering thereof, but when he attempts to move the body he pulls the chain and sets off the spiral spring, which strikes the needle with great force, explodes the cap, and sends buckshot or ball in an upward direction. The grave-robber, stooping over his work is liable to be shot with deadly effect. Under the most favorable circumstances to him he is likely to be powerfully impressed with a sense of danger, and to vacate the premises with dispatch. The torpedoes will not be very expensive, and several of them may be placed in the same coffin, so that the resurrectionist will have no assurance, when one explodes, that the danger is over. Should the article come into general use, the knowledge of its existence will have a restraining influence, and it will do its work without many fatal cases. Iowa Liberal [Lemars, IA] 31 July 1878: p. 8

TORPEDOES FOR BODY SNATCHERS.

If one may judge from the patent records, live people do a good deal of thinking about death. The very latest device that has been applied to burial appliances is the “coffin torpedo,” which is designed as an effective and very summary punishment for body snatchers. Nothing less than a bomb is introduced into the coffin, before the latter is closed, the arrangement being such—we spare the reader all technical details— that any attempt to force it open will release a spring, strike a percussion cap, and set off the bomb. The thing is done, and the robber is floating in pieces about the air long before he has had any time to prepare for his sudden journey.

But what happens to the corpse? The inventor leaves us in the dark on this point—probably because the question is hard to answer. We are afraid the coffin torpedo has no very brilliant future on this account, and for the further reason that local authorities (who are notoriously difficult to deal with) might object to have their burial grounds studded with infernal machines. Electrical Engineer, Vol. 22, 1896 p. 332

Clover wasn’t the only man thinking along these lines.

SURE DEATH TO GHOULS.

A Lawyer’s Startling Device to Foil Grave Robbers.

The details of the device of Jesse Hodgin, the well-known Westfield [Indiana] attorney, to protect the grave of his wife were made public the other day, says a Noblesville (Inc.) dispatch to the Cincinnati Enquirer. The plan has been examined by experts, who unhesitatingly say that it will put a stop to body snatching by ghouls. They not only say the device will be effective, but they also indorse it because it is inexpensive.

A few inches above the rough box in the grave is an ordinary gas pipe three-quarters of an inch in diameter filled with nitro-glycerine. The pipe occupies a position lengthwise of the coffin and extends from six to twelve inches over each end. There is a cap fastened tightly on each end of the pipe to prevent the deadly explosive from leaking. Scattered promiscuously through the soil about a foot or eighteen inches above the pipe are several dozen concussion caps. A spade or any hard substance that comes in contact with these caps will explode them. The jar will in turn explode the nitro-glycerine, which would mean death to any one within twenty-five or fifty feet of the grave. It is intimated that there is sufficient nitro-glycerine in the pipe to make an excavation in the earth fifty feet square and from ten to fifteen feet deep.

While Mr. Hodgin admits that the explosion would completely destroy the body of his wife, he says he would rather see that done than to know that the remains were ever on a dissecting table in a medical college.

“And I would also know that there would be some dead ghouls somewhere in the vicinity of the grave,” he said. “The plan is original with me and my brother, but I am satisfied that it would prove a success if it was ever tried. When I first mentioned the matter to the sexton of the cemetery, he refused to allow me to put in the device on the ground that it might result in injuring some innocent parties or despoil other graves. I then consulted the trustees who have charge of the cemetery and obtained their consent.” The Newark [OH] Advocate 6 November 1902:  p. 8

It is impossible to know how often these devices were deployed, but here is an incident from 1881.

A more serious incident was reported near the village of Gann [Knox County] about the same time. When three men attempted a grave robbery, they struck a torpedo which had been planted near the bottom of the grave, instantly killing one of the men and breaking a leg of one other. The third party, who was keeping a watch, succeeded in getting his companions into a sleigh, taking flight, and evading arrest.  Ohio State Journal January 20, 1881. 

But when it comes to poetic justice, it would be hard to top this story.

A Man Hung by a Corpse

The Cincinnati (Ohio) Gazette states that on Saturday night, a fellow was stealing a dead body from the graveyard at Cumminsville near that city, when in crossing the fence, he slipped and fell on the outside, and the rope which held the sack containing the corpse, sliding from his shoulders to his neck, at daylight his body was found hanging on the outside of the graveyard fence, while the corpse he had stolen, hung on the inside, both equally lifeless. Weekly Vincennes [IN] Gazette 12 March 1859

I will add the caveat that there’s an identical story about a man stealing a pig.

Given the many hazards inherent in the profession, I was surprised to unearth no tales of body-snatchers crushed by tipping tombstones, buried alive, or infected by diseased corpses. Except this one, about the ghastly end of one phrenologist-turned- grave-robber. This was the story my editor wouldn’t let me use in The Victorian Book of the DeadShe said it was too gruesome.  Thanks to the fearless and always tasteful Undine of Strange Company for sharing!

Other grave threats to Resurrectionists? chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the DeadThe Ghost Wore BlackThe Headless HorrorThe Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.

The French Doctor’s Bride: 1830s

lighter shrouded corpse Rowlandson 1775
Grave-robbers interrupted by Death, Thomas Rowlandson, 1775 https://wellcomecollection.org/works/j7twdvrd

THE FRENCH DOCTOR’S BRIDE.

BY VICTOR LECOMTE.

Twenty-five years ago I entered the medical college at F__ as a student. I was then quite young, inexperienced, and inclined to be timid and sentimental; and well do I remember the horror I experienced, when one of the senior students, under pretence of showing me the beauties of the institution, suddenly thrust me into the dissecting room, among several dead bodies, and closed the door upon me; nor do I forget how my screeches of terror, and prayers for release from that awful place, made me the laughing-stock of my older companions.

Ridicule is a hard thing to bear: the coward becomes brave to escape it, and the brave man fears it more than he would a belching cannon. I suffered from it till I could stand no more; and wrought up to a pitch of desperation, I demanded to know what I might do to redeem my character, and gain an honourable footing among my fellow students.

“I will tell you,” said one, his eyes sparkling with mischief; “if you will go, at the midnight hour, and dig up a subject, and take it to your room, and remain alone with it till morning, we will let you off, and never say another word about your womanly fright.”

I shuddered. It was a fearful alternative; but it seemed less terrible to suffer all the horrors that might be concentrated into a single night, than to bear, day after day, the jeers of my companions.

“Where shall I go and when?” was my timid inquiry; and the very thought of such an adventure made my blood run cold.

“To the Eastern Cemetery, to night, at twelve o’clock,” replied my tormentor, fixing his keen, black eyes upon me, and allowing his thin lips to curl with a smile of contempt. “But what is the use of asking such a coward as you to perform such a manly feat?” he added, deridingly

His words stung me to the quick; and without further reflection, and scarcely aware of what I was saying, I rejoined, boldly, “I am no coward, sir, as I will prove to you, by performing what you call a manly feat.”

“You will go?'” he asked quickly.

“I will,” was my response.

“Bravely said, my lad!” he rejoined, in a tone of approval, and exchanging his expression of contempt for one of surprise and admiration. “Do this, Morel, and the first man that insults you afterwards makes an enemy of me.”

Again I felt a cold shudder pass through my frame, at the thought of what was before me; but I had accepted his challenge in the presence of many witnesses—for this conversation occurred as we were leaving the hall, after listening to an evening lecture—and I was resolved to make my word good, should it even cost me my life: in fact, I knew I could not do otherwise now, without the risk of being driven in disgrace from the college.

I should here observe, that in those days there were few professional resurrectionists; and as it was absolutely necessary to have subjects for dissection, the unpleasant business of procuring them devolved upon the students, who, in consequence, watched every funeral eagerly, and calculated the chances of cheating the sexton of his charge, and the grave of its victim.

There had been a funeral, that day, of a poor orphan girl, who had been followed to the grave by very few friends; and this was considered a favorable chance for the party whose turn it was to procure the next subject, as the graves of the poor and friendless were never watched with the same keen vigilance as those of the rich and influential. Still, it was no trifling risk to attempt to exhume the bodies of the poorest and humblest—for not unfrequently persons were found on the watch even over these; and only the year before, one student, while at his midnight work, had been mortally wounded by a rifle-ball; and another, a month or two subsequently, had been rendered a cripple for life by the same means.

All this was explained to me by a party of six or eight, who accompanied me to my room—which was in a building belonging to the college, and let out in apartments to some of the students; and they took care to add several terrifying stories of ghosts and hobgoblins, by way of calming my excited nerves, just as I have before now observed old women stand around a weak, feverish patient, and croak out their experience in seeing awful sufferings and fatal terminations of just such maladies as the one with which their helpless victim was then afflicted.

“Is it expected that I shall go alone?” I inquired, in a tone that trembled in spite of me, while my knees almost knocked together, and I felt as if my very lips were white.

“Well, no,” replied Belmont, my most dreaded tormentor; “it would be hardly fair to send you alone, for one individual could not succeed in getting the body from the grave quick enough; and you, a mere youth, without experience, would be sure to fail altogether. No, we will go with you, some three or four of us, and help to dig up the corpse; but then you must take it on your back, bring it up to your room here, and spend the night alone with it!”

It was some relief to me to find I was to have company during the first part of my awful undertaking; but still I felt far from agreeable, I assure you; and chancing to look into a mirror, as the time drew near for setting out, I fairly started at beholding the ghastly object I saw reflected therein.

“Come, boys,” said Belmont, who was always, by general consent, the leader of whatever frolic, expedition, or undertaking, he was to have a hand in; “Come, boys! it is time to be on the move. A glorious night for us!” he added, throwing up the window, and letting in a fierce gust of wind and rain: “the very d__l himself would hardly venture out in such a storm!’” He lit a dark-lantern, threw on his long, heavy cloak, took up a spade, and led the way down stairs; and the rest of us, three besides my timid self, threw on our cloaks also, took each a spade, and followed him.

We took a roundabout course, to avoid being seen by any citizen that might by chance to be stirring; and in something less than half-an-hour we reached the cemetery, scaled the wall without difficulty, and stealthily searched for the grave, till we found it, in the pitchy darkness—the wind and rain sweeping past us with dismal howls and moans, that to me, trembling with terror, seemed to be the unearthly wailings of the spirits of the damned.

“Here we are,” whispered Belmont to me, as we at length stopped at a mound of fresh earth, over which one of our party had stumbled. “Come, feel round, Morel, and strike in your spade; and let us see if you will make as good a hand at exhuming a dead body as you will some day at killing a living one with physic.”

I did as directed, trembling in every limb; but the first spade-full I threw up, I started back with a yell of horror, that, on any other but a howling, stormy night, would have betrayed us. It appeared to me as if I had thrust my spade into a buried lake of fire—for the soft dirt was all aglow like living coals; and as I had fancied the moanings of the storm the wailings of tormented spirits, I now fancied I had uncovered a small portion of the Bottomless Pit itself.

“Fool!” hissed Belmont, grasping my arm with the gripe of a vice, as I stood leaning on my spade for support, my very teeth chattering with terror; “another yell like that, and I’ll make a subject of you! Are you not ashamed of yourself to be scared out of your wits, if you ever had any, by a little phosphorescent earth? Don’t you know it is often found in graveyards?”

His explanation re-assured me; though I was now too weak, from my late fright, to be of any assistance to the party; who all fell too with a will, secretly laughing at me, and soon reached the coffin. Splitting the lid with a hatchet, which had been brought for the purpose, they quickly lifted out the corpse; and then Belmont and another of the party taking hold of it, one at the head and the other at the feet, they hurried it away, bidding me follow, and leaving the others to fill up the grave, that it might not be suspected the body had been exhumed.

Having got the corpse safely over the wall of the cemetery, Belmont now called upon me to perform my part of the horrible business. “Here, you quaking simpleton,” he said, “I want you to take this on your back, and make the best of your way to your room, and remain alone with it all night. If you do this bravely, we will claim you as one of us to-morrow, and the first man that dares to say a word against your courage after that, shall.find a foe in me. But hark you! if you make any blunder on the way, and lose our prize, it will be better for you to quit this town before I set eyes on you again! Do you understand me?”

“Y—ye-ye—yes!” I stammered, with chattering teeth.

“Are you ready?” Y-ye-ye—yes,” I gasped.

“Well, come here! where are you?” All this time it was so dark that I could see nothing but a faint line of white, which I knew to be the shroud of the corpse; but I felt carefully round till I got hold of Belmont, who told me to take off my cloak; and then rearing the cold dead body up against my back, he began fixing its cold arms about my neck-bidding me take hold of them, and draw them well over, and keep them concealed, and be sure and not let go of them, on any consideration whatsoever, as I valued my life. Oh! the torturing horror I experienced, as I mechanically followed his directions! Tongue could not describe it!

At length, having adjusted the corpse so that I might bear it off with comparative ease, he threw my long black cloak over it, and over my arms, and fastened it with a cord about my neck, and then inquired, “Now, Morel, do you think you can find the way to your room?”

“I—I—do-do—don’t know,” I gasped, feeling as if I should sink to the earth at the first step.

“Well, you cannot lose your way if you go straight ahead,” he replied. “Keep in the middle of this street or road, and it will take you to College Green, and then you are all right. Come, push on, before your burden grows too heavy; the distance is only a good half-mile!”

I set forward with trembling nerves, expecting to sink to the ground at every step; but gradually my terror, instead of weakening, gave me strength; and I was soon on the run—splashing through mud and water—with the storm howling about me in fury, and the cold corpse, as I fancied, clinging to me like a hideous vampire.

How I reached my room, I do not know—but probably by a sort of instinct; for I only remember of my brain being in a wild, feverish whirl, with ghostly phantoms all about me, as one sometimes sees them in a dyspeptic dream. But reach my room I did, with my dead burden on my back; and I was afterwards told that I made wonderful time; for Belmont and his fellow student, fearing the loss of their subject—which, on account of the difficulty of getting bodies, was very valuable— followed close behind me, and were obliged to run at the top of their speed to keep me within hailing distance.

The first I remember distinctly, after getting to my room, was the finding myself awake in bed, with a dim consciousness of something horrible having happened—although what, for some minutes, I could not for the life of me recollect. Gradually, however, the truth dawned upon me; and then I felt a cold perspiration start from every pore, at the thought that perhaps I was occupying a room alone with a corpse. The room was not dark; there were a few embers in the grate, which threw out a ruddy light; and fearfully raising my head, I glanced quickly and timidly around.

And there—there, on the floor, against the right hand wall, but a few feet from me—there, sure enough, lay the cold, still corpse, robed in its white shroud, with a gleam of firelight resting upon its ghastly face, which to my excited fancy seemed to move. Did it move? I was gazing upon it, thrilled and fascinated with an indescribable terror, when, as sure as I see you now, I saw the lids of its eyes unclose, and saw its breast heave, and heard a low, stifled moan.

“Great God!” I shrieked, and fell back in a swoon.

How long I lay unconscious I do not know; but when I came to myself again, it is a marvel to me, that, in my excited state, I did not lose my senses altogether, and become the tenant of a madhouse ; for there—right before me-standing up in its white shroud—with its eyes wide open and staring upon me, and its features thin, hollow and death-hued—was the corpse I had brought from the cemetery.

“In God’s name, avaunt! ” I gasped. “Go back to your grave, and rest in peace! I will never disturb you again!”

The large hollow eyes looked more wildly upon me—the head moved, the lips parted, and a voice, in a somewhat sepulchral tone, said, “Where am I? where am I? Who are you? Which world am I in? Am I living or dead?”

“You are dead,” I gasped, sitting up in bed, and feeling as if my brain would burst with a pressure of unspeakable horror; “you were dead and buried, and I was one of the guilty wretches who this night disturbed your peaceful rest. But go back, poor ghost, in heaven’s name! and no mortal power shall ever induce me to come nigh you again!”

“Oh! I feel faint!” said the corpse, gradually sinking down upon the floor, with a groan. “Where am I? Oh! where am I?”

“Great God!” I shouted, as the startling truth suddenly flashed upon me; “perhaps this poor girl was buried alive, and is now living!”

I bounded from the bed, and grasped a hand of the prostrate body. It was not warm—but it was not cold. I put my trembling fingers upon the pulse. Did it beat? or, was it the pulse in my fingers? I thrust my hand upon the heart. It was warm—there was life there. The breast heaved—she breathed—but the eyes were now closed, and the features had the look of death. Still it was a living body—or else I myself was insane. I sprung to the door, tore it open, and shouted for help. “Quick! quick!” cried I. “the dead is alive! The dead is alive!

Several of the students sleeping in adjoining rooms came hurrying to mine, thinking I had gone mad with terror, as some of them had heard my voice before, and all knew to what a fearful ordeal I had been subjected.

“Poor fellow!” exclaimed one, in a tone of sympathy; “I predicted this!”

“It is too bad,” said another; “it was too much for his nervous system!”

“I am not mad,” returned I—comprehending their suspicions; “but the corpse is alive!—hasten and see!”

Hey hurried into the room, one after another; and the foremost, stopping down to what he suppposed was a corpse, put his hand upon it, and instantly exclaimed, “Quick a light and some brandy! She lives! she lives!”
All now was bustle, confusion, and excitement, one proposing one thing, and another something else, and all speaking together. They placed her on the bed, and gave her some brandy, when she again revived. I ran for a physician (one of the faculty), who came and tended upon her through the night; and by sunrise the next morning she was reported to be in a fair way of recovery.

And recover she did; and turned out to be a most beautiful creature, and only sweet seventeen. But that is not all: for she turned out an heiress, and married me!

Yes: that night of horror only preceded the dawn of my happiness; for that girl—sweet,
lovely Helene Leroy—in time became my wife, and the mother of my two boys.
She sleeps now in death, beneath the cold, cold sod, and no human resurrectionist shall ever raise her to life again!
 Frank Leslie’s New York Journal, 1857: p. 85-6

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: A most grim, gothic, and grewsome tale, in the florid French vein of the Gallic tabloids, but Mrs Daffodil does so like a happy ending, even one that sums up an entire lifetime of important events in a paragraph or two.

Mrs Daffodil will not quibble over how a friendless orphan girl was transmuted into a beautiful heiress, but perhaps on the dark and stormy night, the medical students mistook the grave.

 

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

 

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.

The Doll’s Ghost: 1862

A Victorian post-mortem daguerrotype of a child with her doll.
A Victorian post-mortem daguerreotype of a child with her doll. Former eBay listing

Has anyone ever yet heard of the ghost of a doll? Such an alleged phenomenon was the cause of much excitement and uneasiness in a fashionable German watering-place, only a few months since; and these were the singular circumstances.

A pretty little girl (daughter of one of the residents) well known in the neighbourhood from being constantly seen playing in the public gardens at W__, died last year, after a few weeks’ illness, having been much soothed and solaced during that painful interval by the companionship of a favourite doll. The latter, who had received the name of ‘Flore’ was scarcely less familiar to the juvenile community than her poor little mistress. It seemed painful to separate the two. At all events, it is a feeling perfectly intelligible that induced the friends of the deceased child to place the doll in the coffin, in the position it had been used to occupy on the bosom of the little sleeper, and thus they were interred in the neighbouring cemetery of B___.

Some weeks elapsed, and then a strange mysterious whisper went abroad that Eulalie (the little girl) and Flore had reappeared in the public walks and gardens. The rumour quickly narrowed down to the apparition of Flore alone; but here it made so determined a stand, as to awaken the attention of the older and wiser members of the community. Not a day passed without one or other of the juvenile playmates bringing home an eager story of Flore’s having been distinctly seen, sometimes sitting under a rosebush, sometimes reclining at full length on a garden seat, sometimes carried in the arms of a certain dark-looking child, whose demeanour had discouraged any close advances, who disdained skipping-rope, and had proved impervious to the seductive influence of hoops.

With some difficulty, the story was traced back to this circumstance, that, about three weeks after the funeral, an intimate playfellow of Eulalie was walking in the gardens, when her attention was attracted by two other children quarrelling. With the curiosity of her years, the little girl hurried up to ascertain the cause of the dispute. It was a doll. No sooner had her eyes lit upon it, than she uttered a scream, flew back to her nurse, and, pulling her towards the spot, bade her look at the ghost of  ‘Flore’ who had been buried with Eulalie.

The nurse complied, but, less familiar with Flore’s specialities than her charge, declined to offer any decided opinion on the subject, excepting that it was certainly no ghost, and had a different cap and bonnet from that in which Flore made her last terrestrial appearance.

The little girl, however, positively maintained that it was Flore, and no other; or, if not Flore, then her ghost, and this opinion she repeated to every acquaintance they encountered during the remainder of the walk. It became, in fact, the child’s fixed idea, and as the alleged frequent sight of the mysterious doll began seriously to affect her health and spirits, the parents, as the readiest means of tranquillizing her, resolved to make a complete inquiry into the matter.

As they knew something of the family (that of a gentleman from the Cape of Good Hope), with whom the doll was associated, there was not much difficulty in getting the toy in question handed over to their scrutiny. It appeared that the little girl was able to mention some certain peculiarities either in the dress or structure of the doll, which were not visible without close examination. These were found to correspond minutely with her description. There was no longer room for question. It was Flore herself.

The ghost was thus laid. But it became necessary to ascertain the cause of the singular resuscitation of Flore’s body, and it presently appeared that the doll had been purchased at a toy shop frequently supplied by a travelling dealer whose habitat was unknown. The authorities at B___ were next applied to, and an order obtained to examine the coffin of the deceased child. It was found empty!

The investigation that followed resulted in the detection of a miscreant who had more than once used his means of access at all hours to the cemetery for the purpose of stripping the bodies of the recently dead, and even, it was darkly hinted, sometimes devoting them to the nutriment of the tenants of his sty. The wretch was condemned to the light penalty of a year’s imprisonment.

 Strange Things Among Us, Henry Spicer, 1863 

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Children were not the usual prey of those human hyenas known as body-snatchers or Resurrectionists, although, as we saw previously, dead foundlings were the perquisite of the dissecting physician in France. The fiend who stole little Eulalie and her doll took a great risk if he was “stripping the bodies of the recently dead,” but seems to have gotten off remarkably lightly. Perhaps he bribed the Judge with some succulent production of his sty.  

Mrs Daffodil is unfamiliar with the legal status of corpses in Germany at the time of this story. However, in England, a corpse was not property and thus could not be stolen. Resurrectionists were careful to strip the bodies they turned over to the physicians. Removing a shroud, a coffin plate–or a doll–would leave the miscreants open to charges of theft with penalties of transportation or even execution. In France, a stiff fine was levied for those who violated graves.

Henry Spicer, who died in 1891, was a writer of novels, short stories, and plays. He was frequently published in Mr.Dickens’s weekly literary magazine All the Year Round. He was also a student of the occult and wrote several books on Spiritualism and like phenomena.

The e-book edition of The Headless Horror: Strange and Ghostly Ohio Tales contains a bonus chapter about body-snatching in Ohio, including the saga of “Old Man Dead,” and a horrific story of a family murdered so their bodies could be sold to the Medical College of Ohio.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

 

 

 

A Ghastly Traffic in Grave-Clothes: 1862, 1878

A woman's shroud, perhaps 1920s. http://digitaltmuseum.se/011023759179/?name=Svepning&advanced_search=1&pos=1&count=41
A woman’s shroud, perhaps 1920s. http://digitaltmuseum.se/011023759179/?name=Svepning&advanced_search=1&pos=1&count=41

The Ghastly Traffic

A great many horrible things have come out concerning the crime of body snatching since the recent sensations in that line. The miserable ghouls who do the stealing by no means confine their traffic to the dead bodies. While engaged in the nefarious calling, everything is fish that comes to their nets. The clothing of the corpse, and all articles of value in the coffin, are bartered away. Sometimes the Janitor of a medical college will come into possession of quite a stock of “second hand clothing,” obtained from the Resurrectionists; and not infrequently impecunious students are found attired from head to foot in garments that have done duty underground as the raiment of corpses. Undertakers provide a coat-front to cover the breast of a corpse, extending sufficiently below the opening of the coffin to give the effect of an entire garment. When this comes into the hands of the thrifty Janitor, he simply inserts another piece in the back, to match, and is ready for a customer. The false teeth of corpses, especially when set in gold, have been known to be sold to unsuspecting parties, who have used them in the mastication of their food! It was once customary to deck the bodies of the dead in expensive stuffs—silk, broadcloth, satin and velvet; and the knowing ones of the fraternity can, if they will, tell startling stories of the extent to which these stuffs find their way into the market again, after having lain a season in the grave. We believe the custom does not prevail to the length it formerly did; the popular cognizance of the extent of grave robbery as a regular business has quickened common sense in the management of funerals.

It is hard to conceive of anything more horrible than these facts. We might hope that the grave and its accessories were free from any lodgment for humor; yet there is something grotesque beyond expression in the sight of a poor medical student dissection a body while arrayed in the very clothes the “subject” wore when it descended into its “last resting place!”

There is one imperative duty resting upon the legislators of Ohio, and every other state whose statute book is not properly equipped in this respect; and that is the framing of a law for the adequate punishment of this crime. The most that can be done to a grave robber in Ohio is to fine him a thousand dollars and send him to prison for six months! This is ridiculously short of the mark. If the infernal fiends who desecrated the tomb of A.T. Stewart are caught, it is a question whether they can be punished in a manner approaching their deserts. We cannot doubt that the subject will receive the attention it deserves. The dearest ties known to humanity connect us with the last resting places of our dead; and the demand of society that those places be made inviolate must be respected.

Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 20 November 1878: p. 2

The theft of burial clothing seems to have been a crime of opportunity. The Sexton, sometimes in the pay of the Resurrection Men, was in a particularly advantageous position to profit:

A Thievish Sexton.

For two days past our usually quiet city has been thrown into the wildest state of excitement, consequent upon the discovery of the most sickening and revolting facts that were ever brought to light in a civilised country. Last week Moroni Clawson and his confreres, in attempting to “slip by justice,” were fired upon and killed by the officers in charge. Their bodies were buried in the city cemetery at the city expense. Two or three days afterwards, a brother of Clawson obtained permission from the city sexton to disinter the body and remove it to Drapersville, the residence of the Clawson family. At the request of some friends, the coffin was opened, and the body was found to be in a perfect state of nudity. The. brother was in a great rage, supposing that the city authorities, had purposely treated the body of the dead highwayman with this shameful neglect; but on inquiry it was ascertained that he was decently interred, and dressed, in the ordinary habiliments of the grave, Suspicion at once fell upon the grave-digger, a, native of Venice, named John Baptiste. His residence was searched by the police, and a large quantity of burial clothes were found and taken possession of by the officers. After many threats, the inhuman wretch confessed that he had carried on this nefarious practice for nine years, three of which he has been engaged as gravedigger in this city. He is now lodged in the city jail, and the clothing which he has stripped from the dead during the last three years is spread out in the main hall, of the Courthouse, where hundreds of persons are now thronging, seeking for articles of grave dresses rifled from the bodies of friends, fathers, mothers, wives, husbands, and children. A more heartrending spectacle can hardly be imagined. Hundreds of shrouds, winding sheets for old and young, male and female, some whole and some torn, in removing them from stiffened corpses, were strewn about the room. It was a sad sight to see anxious mothers seeking for, yet dreading to find, some little garment, torn with rude, inhuman hands from their infant darlings, whom they had laid away in the tomb, never dreaming they would be disturbed until their sleeping dust should be quickened by resurrecting angels. Now and then a deep sigh, an audible sob, or a violent scream of anguish, indicated that some article of grave apparel had been recognised. Here, a widow pale and sad examining the shrouds of the full-grown, and there was the bereaved mother pressing to her heart, now made to bleed afresh, some tiny stocking, little shirt, cap, or dress. ‘Twas a sad, sad scene; from which we were glad to turn away. The whole people are moved; a heavy gloom like a dark pall hangs over the city; sorrow has entered anew into nearly every household. The cemetery is being visited by crowds, although the weather is cold and stormy. The rich man in his carriage, the poor man on foot, the young widow, the staid matron, the old and infirm, all who have lost friends by death, seem to have an ardent desire to visit the graves that have been so ruthlessly desecrated. The prisoner does not seem to realise the enormity of the crime committed. He seems rather to be possessed of dull and blunted sensibilities, than a corrupt and depraved heart. The populace are much excited, and many are urging the Lynch code, but the more sober-thinking portion of the people counsel moderation and law and order. —Salt Lake City correspondent of the Detroit Tribune.

Otago Daily Times 16 June 1862: p. 5

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil is generally inured to Horrors, but the detail about the false teeth was just that little bit above the odds…  In a curious legal loophole, the bodies of the dead were no one’s property, while the theft of shrouds, coffin-furniture, or trinkets from the body could send a man to prison. Still, given the tight time constraints  under which they operated, it seems doubtful that Resurrectionists would be so scrupulous as to conscientiously strip a body and lay the clothing back in the coffin to be reinterred. Unprincipled undertakers were often happy to resell used burial robes, while shrouds in less presentable condition could be sold to paper-makers, no doubt to end up as black-bordered envelopes.

While Mrs Daffodil is shuddering at the laundry problems posed by garments stolen from the dead, one ingenious Kansas lady, delighted by the attractive shrouds on display at her local undertaker, decided to pre-empt the grave, and steal from the living:

STOLE A SHROUD TO WEAR

An Atchison Woman Trimmed a Burial Robe and Used It.

Burial robes for street dresses is the latest fad, as introduced by an Atchison woman. J.A. Harouff, a local undertaker, missed a woman’s burial robe the other day. Yesterday afternoon he saw a woman on Commercial street wearing the robe. She had adorned with a few fancy frills and trimmings, but there was no doubt as to the identity of the robe, and Mr. Harouff says the dress was a “mighty stylish looking gown.” The undertaker was so astonished that he has decided not to ask for the return of his property. “A woman with that much nerve and ingenuity deserves a reward, not punishment,” he said today.

The Washington Post 17 August 1914: p. 6

For more on Victorian mourning practices and burial clothes, see The Victorian Book of the Dead. For the girl shroud makers of New York and other makers of burial clothing, see Sewing Shrouds and Dead Men’s Shoes.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.